In a move that's stirred much criticism, New York Rep. Peter King on Thursday, at 9:30 a.m. Eastern, will hold a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee examining radicalization among American Muslims.
Not since the Bush administration has public debate erupted so sharply over whether a particular congressional hearing should even be held.
King says the hearing is "absolutely necessary." Radicalization exists in the Muslim community in America, and it's his job as committee chairman to fully investigate it, King has said.
"I have no choice. I have to hold these hearings. These hearings are absolutely essential. What I'm doing is taking the next logical step from what the administration has been saying. Eric Holder says he lies awake at night worrying about the growing radicalization of people in this country who are willing to take up arms against their government. I believe that the leadership, too many leaders in the Muslim community do not face up to that reality," King recently told CNN's Dana Bash.
"I never want to wake up the morning after another attack and say if only I had done what I should have done as homeland security chairman, this wouldn't have happened," said King, who represents a district on Long Island.
Others don't see it that way: Many have raised questions about whether King is wrong to single out a particular religious group. Comparisons to McCarthyism have being raised.
One of King's leading critics is Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who in 2006 became the first Muslim elected to Congress. Ellison told CNN's "State of the Union" last weekend that he's concerned about the message King's hearing sends to American Muslims.
"I worry about it. Everybody I talk to worries about it. And we're concerned about the breadth of this," King said. "It's absolutely the right thing to do for the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee to investigate radicalization, but to say we're going to investigate a -- a religious minority and a particular one, I think, is the wrong course of action to take."
Ellison will testify at Thursday's hearing. He told CNN that "I believe in engaging in the process."
The hearing will draw many a news camera, and more commentary than can probably be read or listened to. But before it happens, here's what to watch for and/or expect:
- Keith Ellison's testimony. Ellison heard about the upcoming hearing by word of mouth, approached King about it, and was asked to attend. His testimony promises to be the newsiest part of Thursday's hearing; he'll speak either first or second, after opening statements by King and ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). Ellison is one of two Muslim members of Congress, and as the first Muslim sworn in, he's confronted most of the hurdles -- targeted as "pro-terrorist," his presence denounced by colleagues, his ceremonial swearing-in on a Qur'an questioned -- in a series of mini-controversies that have erupted since his election in 2008. Whether he likes it or not, Ellison has become the voice for Muslims in Congress, even after the swearing-in of fellow Muslim Andre Carson (D-Ind.) in 2008. Challenging the hearing's premise will be "front and center" in Ellison's testimony Thursday, according to an aide.
- More than one hearing? King has referred to his Muslim radicalization "hearings" in the plural, as he did in the interview with CNN's Dana Bash, as has Ellison. It's unlikely that the committee will get to the bottom of Muslim radicalization tomorrow, and when congressional committees find cause for further investigative study, they follow up. But it's not perfectly clear whether, or when, King will do so. A Democratic committee staffer said King has not notified the committee's minority members of another hearing.
- What the Democratic witnesses will say. Aside from Ellison, two other members of Congress will testify, including Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member of the House, whose district is home to a large Muslim population. Democrats have also called Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca. Both are expected to testify on their dealings with the American Muslim community. Baca will say that singling out Muslims for investigation, or suggesting that Islam supports terrorism, hinders law enforcement's goal of building trust with Muslim communities.
- What the Republican witnesses will say. Republicans have called Melvin Bledsoe, the father of a man who allegedly shot and killed an Army recruiter in 2009; Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, which released a film called "The Third Jihad" to warn against homegrown terrorism in concert with RadicalIslam.org/The Clarion Fund; and Abdirizak Bihi, director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center in Minneapolis.
Bledsoe will testify about the radicalization and brainwashing of his son. Jasser will suggest that American Islam needs to reform, and that groups push American Muslims not to cooperate with law enforcement. Bihi will recount seeing Muslims in Minneapolis become radicalized and encountering difficulty from Muslim groups in searching for them.
- What members will ask. Given King's stated concerns and the background of the GOP witnesses, Republicans will likely focus on American Muslims' willingness to cooperate with law enforcement, and whether American Muslim institutions pressure them not to cooperate. Expect Democrats to raise questions about singling out Muslims for investigation, and to ask Democratic witnesses about their (generally positive) experiences and relationships with American Muslim communities and groups.
- Who's the bad guy? The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). The organization regularly gets beat up by Israel advocates, the FBI cut ties with it in early 2009, and more than one person has intimated that it's a front for global Islamic dominance. Anti-CAIR narratives could permeate King's hearing, as Republican lawmakers and witnesses discuss institutional recalcitrance in Muslim America.
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